A study of seeing, in two parts.
Robert Levitt does most of his work in a spacious, light-filled studio in the Mo’ara Valley. Huge skylights offer views of Polyphemus looming overhead. The room is overstocked, like a bomb shelter, with paints and brushes and canvasses shipped from Earth. Worn prints by Vermeer and Turner gaze down on the cluttered work tables lining the room.
It is very comfortable, both airy and intimate — but still, it is a studio. Which might seem odd if, when you think of a “landscape painter,” you think of someone climbing a hill with paints and easel to sit for hours, capturing the view below. Levitt has a simple answer for why he rarely does this on Pandora:
“There are safe spots, but mostly that’s a good way to get eaten.”
The classically trained Levitt — who for the first time has generously donated a selection of his paintings for display through the PRF — has lived on the moon for over a decade. Deadly predators (and the need to quickly photograph the scenes one will paint) represent the least of the adjustments he’s made to his art discipline.
What makes painting on Pandora different is Pandora itself: the gas giant Polyphemus dominates the sky, along with its thirteen other moons; there are effectively two suns, Alpha Centauri A and B, plus the red dwarf Alpha Centauri C (though only A is Pandora’s true sun in the functional sense). In the right conditions, some or all of these can combine to create light temperatures that are fantastic and truly alien. And then at night, of course, there is the bioluminescence.
“There’s a quality of light here that’s unlike any i’ve ever seen, certainly on Earth. It can be so vivid and suffused it’s almost liquid, like honey. It reminds you of that magical light you get on certain days in west Los Angeles, the light Hockney went to America for — but then of course it’s so different.”
We ask him: Is that what you went to Pandora for?
A corner of Levitt’s mouth turns up in a wry smile.
“Pandora is not LA.”
Levitt’s entrance into the art scene began when digital captures of his work started showing up in social media accounts here on Earth. What struck people immediately was not the alien landscape itself, but the meticulous, near-photo-real detail with which Levitt rendered it. His is a style marked by direct observation, foregoing the intellectual pursuits of abstraction in favor of a more naturalistic, documentarian approach. One day there may be a Kandinsky of Pandora, but for now the real landscape, presented literally, is provocative enough as it is.
“In a way,” he says, “Pandora turns back the clock on what we know of art, certainly representational art. If you want to paint Pandora you’re basically time-traveling back to the 17th century, and re-learning how to get light right, re-learning how to get form right. You need to go back to your Rembrandt — but specifically you need to imagine what Rembrandt would have done if you’d dropped him into the jungle with a Na’vi guide”
If Rembrandt is his North Star, then the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole is probably his closest working counterpart. (Incidentally, Levitt has influenced the expatriate art community enough that there’s talk of an incipient “Mo’ara Valley School,” with him as its figurehead. He shrugs this off). With much of Cole’s work, the viewer needs to scrutinize the landscape to determine whether the scene is fictional, and in every regard the same can be said for Levitt. His work, like “Sturmbeest on the River” left, has the Cole-like quality of being painstakingly accurate but also somehow romantic, even mythic. You might think you’re imagining Pandora, even as you look at the tiniest, living details of a place that, amazingly, really exists.
In the next installment, we’ll look at two of Levitt’s trickier subjects: bioluminescence, and the Na’vi.